Cornerbacks Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson were two key cogs in Virginia Tech’s defensive machine in 2017. The Hokies finished 13th in total defense, fourth in scoring defense and second in third down defense. Bud Foster put together one of his best defenses in recent memory, thanks in large part to the Hokies’ stingy secondary.
Now, Virginia Tech must replace those two cogs. Stroman and Facyson are likely going to hear their names called at this month’s 2018 NFL Draft, leaving two gaping holes in the Hokies’ defense. Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, finding their replacements has been rather difficult this spring.
The Hokies have more than enough options, ranging from senior Adonis Alexander to freshmen DJ Crossen and Jermaine Waller. However, finding guys capable of stepping into the starting role full-time is proving to be an arduous task. On Tuesday, head coach Justin Fuente reiterated his concerns from earlier this spring, even though he’s seeing more “accountability” and “consistency”.
“I think Jovonn (Quillen) has made some large strides. I’ve been pleased with his development,” Fuente said. “We’ve got several guys that are a little bit older that are working on all of that stuff. And I’m not singling out Adonis, I’m just saying several guys in general, that are going to have to get that stuff taken care of and act in that manner, or we’ll move on.”
Fuente went on to say that he wasn’t specifically speaking about Alexander, who has had his share of on and off the field troubles. But, Fuente added that Alexander and others do have to make progress.
“Adonis loves playing football. I love Adonis, I love all our kids. They all have their own things they’ve got to overcome and handle,” Fuente said. “Each guy is different. He’s not the only one, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not going to get into a public admonishment of each player that we’re working through things, but (Adonis) has a lot of great qualities, he enjoys being a part of this football team, as do some of those other guys I’m referring to, and hopefully they’ll continue to do right in all areas of their lives so they can be a part of this.”
Alexander has a golden opportunity in front of him. He’s easily the most experienced cornerback on the roster, and at 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds, he has prototypical size for the position. But he has missed three games over the last two seasons due to suspensions and lost out to Stroman and Facyson in the starting competition last season. The lack of consistency, both on and off the field, has held him back from hitting his ceiling.
On the flip side, Jovonn Quillen seems to be taking advantage of the opportunity. The junior cornerback has played almost exclusively on special teams in his first two seasons, but is settling in at cornerback this spring.
“Jovonn is starting to come on,” said cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell. “He’s starting to feel like he’s got a place at home. When I got here, he was a safety, and safety to corner is a whole different dynamic. I think the kid has embraced everything we’ve asked him. He’s been a great special teams player. Now, we’re going to ask a little bit more to see if he can master the corner position as well. He’s done a good job this spring.”
Quillen’s career track was delayed after he moved to cornerback from safety. Mitchell noted on Tuesday that the two positions have a lot of differences in Virginia Tech’s defensive scheme, forcing Quillen to learn a brand new position.
“You’re talking about a kid that played quarterback in high school, and probably lined up just in the middle of the field and they told him, ‘see ball, get ball,’ because he was so dynamic as an athlete,” Mitchell said. “But when you start talking the verbiage that we have in this scheme, and then the techniques that go along with it, there’s a learning curve that’s going to be a part of that process. I think he’s getting to the point now where he’s feeling comfortable with what we’re doing down in and down out.”
“It was a pretty good change for me,” Quillen said. “I’m more comfortable playing out on an island by myself. I had Adonis, (Greg Stroman), (Brandon Facyson) to show me the ropes. I like it.”
Sophomore Bryce Watts has also seized on the open reps at cornerback this spring. Watts played on special teams and in garbage time vs. East Carolina in 2017, but has taken his game to the next level this offseason.
“He’s much more comfortable, more confident in what he’s doing out there,” Fuente said of Watts. “He’s still got some physical development to do. He’s been a track guy that — the weight room has been a welcomed challenge for him and he’s done a good job in that respect, but has several steps to go in that regard. But when you watch him practice, or when I’ve been around him, he just feels a lot more comfortable in what’s going on, and Coach Mitchell’s been hard on him and pushed him to continue to improve. He’s taken some pretty big steps forward.”
Mitchell noted that though Watts has always had the physical tools, he’s become more polished.
“A young man that has grown tenfold since the start of last camp to this spring session,” Mitchell said of Watts. “He’s a kid with tremendous gifts. He’s a 100-meter champion from New Jersey, so he’s got that speed. He’s relied on that quite a bit, but now you’re starting to see him master the techniques as well master our scheme, which is not easy to do as a young player.”
Virginia Tech has three other intriguing options at cornerback — DJ Crossen, Jermaine Waller and Jeremy Webb. Both Crossen and Waller enrolled this winter and are going through Virginia Tech’s spring practices, potentially giving them a leg up on the other freshmen enrolling this fall.
“We didn’t miss on athleticism,” Mitchell said of Crossen and Waller. “Both kids have great football IQ. They’re going to be welcomed additions to our future. The work ethic is there, but just seeing some bright-eyed kids that should be getting ready for prom right now, or graduation, here on campus right now, where they’re going to have a chance to help us in the fall.”
Webb has a real chance to start for Virginia Tech in 2018, despite not yet being on campus. The JUCO cornerback brings good size at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, and has more playing experience than just about everyone else at cornerback. Even though that experience came at the junior college level, Mitchell has high expectations.
“There’s a big gap between Bryce Watts and Adonis Alexander,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have but one junior in that slot right now, and that’s Quillen. Tyree Rodgers is going to be a redshirt sophomore, Bryce will be a true sophomore, we’ll have Waller, a true freshman, DJ (Crossen), a true freshman, Nadir Thompson, a true freshman. Webb is going to give us an opportunity to bring some maturity there, bring some experience at a different level and hopefully some gamesmanship where he can get out there and win a starting job.”